Executive sources have told the Wall Street Journal that Ford is to base a replacement for its ageing Taurus sedan - once the best-selling car in America - on the new Mazda 6 sedan refcently launched worldwide by its Japanese affiliate.

The WSJ said the original Taurus, launched in 1986 with rounded styling and front-wheel drive, was a big hit and helped Ford out of deep financial trouble during the 1980s but changing tastes and unsuccessful recent designs have left the Taurus uncompetitive with newer models from Japan in recent years.

Ironically Ford has previously exported the Taurus to Japan but attempts to sell right-hand drive versions of the redesigned 1996 model in Australia and New Zealand foundered as the cars were underpowered and expensive compared with the roomier and more powerful Australian-built Ford Falcon line with which they shared dealer showrooms.

The WSJ said that Ford now sells more than half the Tauruses it builds to rental and other fleets in the US while the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord dominate the sales charts.

With foreign rivals now attacking their strongholds in the sport-utility-vehicle and pickup-truck markets, the WSJ added, Ford and other US car makers are trying to shore up their largely dated car line-ups, often relying on foreign affiliates to do much of the work.

It has been reported elsewhere in recent weeks that both Ford and GM plan to cater to the fleet and rental car markets for medium-sized sedans by keeping the current Ford Taurus and Chevrolet Malibu in production as "fleet-only" products until at least 2005.

Ford would then woo private buyers with new models such as the planned Five Hundred crossover SUV (built in a former Taurus plant in Chicago) while GM would offer a redesigned and expanded Chevrolet Impala sedan line - a bigger car than the Malibu - plus a new range of large Pontiac sedans with powerful V8 engines.